In the nineteenth century, women had no place in national politics. They could not stand as candidates for Parliament. They were not even allowed to vote. It was assumed that women did not need the vote because their husbands would take responsibility in political matters. A woman’s role was seen to be child-rearing and taking care of the home.
Votes for women was part of a gradual improvement in women’s rights that had been going on throughout the 19th century. The movement also campaigned for the right to divorce a husband, the right to education, and the right to have a job such as a doctor. Many women, however, saw the vote as the vital achievement that would give them a say in the laws affecting their lives.
As a result of the industrial revolution, many women were in full-time employment, which meant they had opportunities to meet in large organised groups to discuss political and social issues.
The movement to gain votes for women had two wings, the suffragists and the suffragettes. The suffragists had their origins in the mid-nineteenth century, while the suffragettes came into being in 1903.
Organised campaigns for women’s suffrage began to appear in 1866 and from 1888 women could vote in many local council elections. When parliamentary reform was being debated in 1867, MP John Stuart Mill became the first person in the history of Parliament to call for women to be given the right to vote, vigorously defending this position in subsequent debate. The amendment was rejected by 194 votes to 73.
In the wake of this defeat, the London Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed. Similar Women’s Suffrage groups were formed all over Britain. In 1897, seventeen of these individual groups joined together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett.
The NUWSS wanted the vote for middle-class property-owning women. They believed they would achieve their goal using peaceful tactics – non-violent demonstrations, petitions and the lobbying of MPs. Fawcett believed that if the organisation was seen to be intelligent, polite and law-abiding then women would prove themselves responsible enough to participate fully in politics.
The leadership of the suffragists was exclusively middle-class but some of the more radical members recognised early on that the movement needed the support of working-class women. The issue of the franchise was drawing women of various sections of society together and giving them an identity that they had lacked until that time.
By 1900 there was already evidence that many Members of Parliament had been won over. Several Bills in favour of women’s suffrage gained considerable support in Parliament, though not enough to pass. Some believed it was only a matter of time until women would gain the vote.
The suffragettes, a name given to them by the Daily Mail newspaper, were born out of the suffragist movement. Emmeline Pankhurst, who had been a member of the Manchester suffragist group, had grown impatient with the middle-class, respectable and slow tactics of the NUWSS. In 1903 she decided to break with the NUWSS and set up a separate society. This became known as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Mrs Pankhurst believed it would take an active organisation, with young working-class women, to draw attention to the cause. The motto of the suffragettes was “deeds not words.”
In 1907 the Women’s Social and Political Union itself split into two groups after Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel came into conflict with other members of the WSPU’s executive body. Those who left formed the Women’s Freedom League, while the Pankhurst’s and their supporters established an even tighter grip on the workings of the WSPU.
The three groups disagreed over tactics but their message was consistent and they regularly worked together. Despite opposition, the argument for women’s suffrage seemed to be winning support. By 1909 the WSPU had branches all over the country and published a newspaper called Votes for Women which sold 20,000 copies each week. The NUWSS was also flourishing, with a rising membership and an efficient nationwide organisation.
Until 1912 the campaigning was largely within the law, mainly chaining themselves to railings and disturbing the peace. From 1912 onwards they became more militant and violent in their methods of campaigning. Activism grew to include planting bombs, smashing shop windows and acts of arson. They disrupted communications networks by cutting telephone and telegraph wires and burning post boxes.
Law-breaking, violence and hunger strikes all became part of this society’s campaign tactics.
Many culturally significant buildings and items were attacked, like paintings, statues, and even the jewel house of the Tower of London and Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus was slashed in the National Gallery. Glasgow Art Gallery had its glass cases smashed in 1912, and in 1914 mummy cases were defaced in the British Museum. At Kew Gardens in London, and an orchid house was attacked and its tea room was burned down.
Bombs and incendiary devices were detonated at churches, banks, railway stations and even Westminster Abbey. Saunderton railway station and Croxley station near Watford were destroyed. On 21 May, a bomb exploded at the Royal Astronomical Observatory in Edinburgh, and that summer a bomb was planted outside the Bank of England. In November 1913, a 3-inch pipe bomb exploded in the Glass House of Alexandra Park in Manchester. Another bomb damaged the home of Chancellor David Lloyd George.
The rough treatment of many suffragettes arrested and jailed during the course of their protests also won increasing sympathy and support from the public.
When World War I broke out in 1914 the whole suffrage movement immediately scaled-down and even suspended some of their activities in the face of a greater threat to the nation. The commendable behaviour also proved that the women were far from unreasonable.
At the end of the war, in 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave women over 30 the vote, and in 1928 this was extended to all women over the age of 21.